At XL Group, helping clients derive value from their data is central to our work. Data is what defines our frustrations, hopes, and successes. We champion a data-driven culture that works hard to quantify performance and support our client’s executive leadership set the same precedence. At XL Group, data is our craft.

Craft may be defined as something done skillfully, but most references to craft or craftsmanship go well past the ideas of technical knowledge and proficiency. A long-time XL Group employee said, “We go above and beyond the client’s needs to satisfy our own curiosity when it comes to data.” This approach more closely reflects NYU Professor Richard Sennett’s definition of craftsmanship as “an enduring basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.”

Part of our craft is knowing its boundaries, such as the ability to differentiate data problems from other organizational challenges and clarify where data is the core problem as opposed to merely a symptom of a different root cause. If executive leadership doesn’t make this distinction between symptoms and root causes, there is a risk of morphing data from a useful tool into a world-view that is indiscriminately applied.

For those that make this error, the world is a collection of nails to be hit with a data-shaped hammer, resulting in some spectacular failures such as Exhibit A and Exhibit B. In the first example, Google incorrectly claimed that it could predict estimates of flu prevalence two weeks earlier than traditional methods. In the second, Target’s algorithms attempted to predict pregnancies, and correctly targeted (pun intended) a teenage girl for pregnancy-related items, much to the chagrin of her father. Note that even though one of these examples was a technical success, both initiatives failed by not realizing that data without thoughtful human oversight is flawed by lacking purpose and focus.

To avoid these errors, leaders must determine how to combine data-driven insight with the more human elements of subjectivity and ambiguity in order to craft narratives that separate correlation from causation. At XL Group, we believe mixing humans and technology is a process that requires a clear value proposition; together we decide what challenges to attack, what data to use, and how to translate the results to reduce noise and identify value.

In exploring our craft, we have learned that raw data can be delicate and complex. It depreciates rapidly and requires maintenance. With the right manipulation, it can easily be presented in a distorted context. Alternatively, when properly managed, it can enrich and explain: identifying connections, offering insight and suggesting opportunity.

Our craft is achieving this enrichment and explanation for our clients, focusing on both the human and the data elements to create a productive interaction tailored to our client’s specific needs and data culture. If enriching the human-data experience in your organization is important to you, we’d love to share in the journey. Email to ask for our help or to just start the conversation about your company’s data culture.